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Self-Interest

October 2, 2008 4 comments

Our nation’s current distress has provoked many to consider the sinful nature of man.  Some believe that the problems we are facing are the inevitable result of an economy founded upon self-interest. Richard Dahlstrom, Senior Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, WA says:

What else could you expect from an economic system predicated on the notion that everyone acting in their own self-interests will always lead to a win/win situation. Somehow, I wonder: WWJT. What would Jesus think?

http://www.conversantlife.com/life-with-god/no-surpise-but-wwjt

Dahlstrom is referring to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” In his “Wealth of Nations,” Smith said:

…he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention… By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.

To put it more simply, he said:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.

In other words, the butcher isn’t motivated by how his meat will help you, he is motivated by the money that you give him in exchange for it. Furthermore, the more money he desires to earn, the harder he works to provide you with whatever you want. Thus out of his own interest he provides for you.

As for the win/win aspect of it, it’s simply the result of a voluntary exchange. The only reason that two people volunatrily choose to trade is because the trade will make both of them better off. No one trades in order to lose. Now, it may be true that they don’t get everything they want out of the trade, but, if they voluntarily make the exchange, it is because they believe they will be better off by doing so. Thus it is a win/win situation.

The alternative to this system of voluntary exchange is force, which is what Dahlstrom and others like him are in favor of. When force is involved, it is not a win/win situation. Someone is losing because they are being forced to do what they would not want to do.

Mother Teresa

Ah, you say, but what about Mother Teresa? Well, I’m convinced Mother Teresa was paid by philosophy professors across the world so they would have something to talk about when they get to the topic of altruism in class. Hitler got a check too as he is the go to when any topic of evil is mentioned.

But was Mother Teresa really motivated by a sense of altruism? A sense of abandoning her own interest for the sake of the poor?

No.

She was deceived by Rome’s false gospel. She spent her life living in the most miserable conditions because she was taught that her personal suffering would bring her closer to Christ. Furthermore, she intentionally deprived suffering people of relief because she wanted to be in a community of suffering.

For more on Teresa:

Mother Teresa’s Redemption
The Myth of Mother Teresa
Penn & Teller on Mother Teresa (a heavy dose of profanity)
Is Mother Teresa a Saint? Part I
Is Mother Teresa a Saint? Part II
The Missionary Position (A Review)

Scripture

That’s interesting, you might say, but my morality isn’t derived from some 18th century economist. My sense of right and wrong comes from the Bible and the Bible says self-interest is sinful.

Does it?

Dahlstrom makes only one reference to Scripture, Matthew 6:33:

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

In regards to this verse, he says Jesus would “think we should put the interests of the kingdom before our own.” The error here is that Dahlstrom thinks that the interest of the kingdom is not our own interest. He thinks we should put aside our self-interest for food, drink, and clothing, and pursue something that is not in our self-interest at all. I’m not sure how he feels, but the kingdom of God is very much in my self-interest.

Rather than teaching us to pursue things that are not in our own self-interest, the verse directs us to what is truly in our highest interest.

John Piper has much to say about this:

When you have the notion that high moral acts must be free from self-interest, then worship, which is one of the highest moral acts a human can perform, has to be conceived simply as duty. And when worship is reduced to a duty, it ceases to exist. One of the great enemies of worship in our church is our own misguided virtue. We have the vague notion that seeking our own pleasure is sin and therefore virtue itself imprisons the longings of our hearts and smothers the spirit of worship. For what is worship if it is not our joyful feasting upon the banquet of God’s glory?

Worship: The Feast of Christian Hedonism

By Christian Hedonism, I do not mean that our happiness is the highest good. I mean that pursuing the highest good will always result in our greatest happiness in the end. But almost all Christians believe this. Christian Hedonism says more, namely, that we should pursue happiness, and pursue it with all our might. The desire to be happy is a proper motive for every good deed, and if you abandon the pursuit of your own joy you cannot love man or please God – that’s what makes Christian Hedonism controversial.

Christian hedonism aims to replace a Kantian morality with a biblical one. Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher who died in 1804, was the most powerful exponent of the notion that the moral value of an act decreases as we aim to derive any benefit from it. Acts are good if the doer is “disinterested.” We should do the good because it is good. Any motivation to seek joy or reward corrupts the act. Cynically, perhaps, but not without warrant, the novelist Ayn Rand captured the spirit of Kant’s ethic:

An action is moral, said Kant, only if one has no desire to perform it, but performs it out of a sense of duty and derives no benefit from it of any sort, neither material nor spiritual. A benefit destroys the moral value of an action. (Thus if one has no desire to be evil, one cannot be good; if one has, one can.)2

Against this Kantian morality (which has passed as Christian for too long!), we must herald the unabashedly hedonistic biblical morality. Jonathan Edwards, who died when Kant was 34, expressed it like this in one of his early resolutions: “Resolved, To endeavor to obtain for myself as much happiness in the other world as I possibly can, with all the power, might, vigor, and vehemence, yea violence, I am capable of, or can bring myself to exert, in any way that can be thought of.”

Christian Hedonism

Sin

In his lecture on “The Ethics of Self Interest and Profit”, part of his “Introduction to Economics” series, John W. Robbins points out that self-interest is not sinful. What is sinful is mistaking what is truly in our self-interest. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. It is in our highest interest to do so. Because we are sinful, we think it is better for us to sinfully break God’s moral law and rebel against Him.

I have read much from Robbins on a variety of topics and he has continually brought fresh insight from the Bible to bear on the topics. His method is to start with a topic, then start at the beginning of his Bible and read it all the way through, making note of every passage that has any relevance to the topic. This can be a tedious task, but it is very rewarding.

A short cut is to simply start with a concordance. If we look up the word profit, we get a few results that are worth discussing:

1 Samuel 12:21 And do not turn aside after empty things that cannot profit or deliver, for they are empty. 22 For the Lord will not forsake his people, for his great name’s sake, because it has pleased the Lord to make you a people for himself.

Here we are instructed to turn to God because He can profit us, unlike the kings Israel sought after instead of God.

Proverbs 3:13 Blessed is the one who finds wisdom,
and the one who gets understanding,
14 for the gain from her is better than gain from silver
and her profit better than gold.

We are to seek wisdom because we can profit from it, because it is in our self-interest.

Proverbs 11:4 Riches do not profit in the day of wrath,
but righteousness delivers from death.

This verse illustrates Robbins’ point above. The riches of this world do not profit anyone in the day of wrath, but those who trust in Christ profit from His righteousness. Thus we are to seek Christ, not riches, because it is in our self-interest.

Next we come to perhaps the strongest verse in support of Dahlstrom:

Matthew 16:24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

This would seem to be an airtight argument that we should not do anything out of self-interest. But let’s continue reading the passge:

25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?

Here, again, we see that it is not sinful to act out of self-interest. What is sinful is thinking that gaining the whole world is in our highest self-interest.

1 Cor 13:1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.

Paul is appealing to self-interest. In fact, Paul condemns these actions that are devoid of love precisely because they do not profit.

Renewing our Minds (Rom 12:2)

Dahlstrom closes his note by saying: “If Christians, who have the very words of Christ about money refuse to altar their view of self-interest economics, how will the rest of world do?”

To that I say, if Christian pastors, who have the very words of God about everything in life, refuse to transform their minds, how will their sheep do?

I pray that God will give us all wisdom as we seek understanding from His Word.